Future Reflections Fall 2009
by Mary Jo Hartle
From the Editor: A number of blind men and women, past and present, have achieved prominence in the sciences. Nevertheless, blind students all too often are discouraged from exploring biology, chemistry, physics, and other scientific fields. The NFB Jernigan Institute is committed to widening opportunities for blind students in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. One of the Institute's most exciting programs is Youth Slam, a smorgasbord of hands-on learning experiences in fields generally considered off limits for blind students.
I wish that, when I was a teen, there had been exciting programs like the NFB Youth Slam for me to attend. Who knows? Maybe if there had been, I'd be writing to you now about something really fascinating like quantum physics. Even if I never really was cut out to be a scientist, I could have learned great lessons and had awesome experiences if I could have attended such a program when I was younger. Instead I now get to live vicariously through the hundred and eighty students who got to participate in this year's program. I know I'm not alone. Many of us wish we'd had such an opportunity. I will do my best to give you a taste of the Youth Slam week. I strongly urge you to visit the blogs and podcasts posted by student participants of the NFB Slam news track at <www.blindscience.org>, because this brief article about the event cannot do it justice.
As many of you know, this year's NFB Youth Slam was only the second one in our organization's history. It took place from July 26 to August 1, 2009, on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park. While holding the program at the university's main campus presented logistical challenges, it gave students a real taste of college life--walking twenty minutes to attend a class, eating in a dining hall, staying up late to hang out with friends, trying new things, and being challenged academically.
In total we created eleven science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) content tracks that students attended each day. Each student was assigned to one of his or her top three picks. Following is a short description of each track and the students' accomplishments during the week.
Slam Engineers Go Green and Blind Design: These two tracks provided a unique opportunity for blind youth to work on a design project with the University of Maryland's School of Architecture. Key faculty members in the two tracks included Caroline McInnis-Sailor, a PhD from Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering, and Nathaniel Wales, a blind civil engineer from the US Army Corps of Engineers. The two tracks collaborated to design energy-friendly houses of the future. Pods (three-student groups) from each track were placed on teams. Each team was assigned a specific biome or ecosystem where its hypothetical house was to be located. Students in the engineering track learned about various sources of alternative energy and how to harness them for a particular biome. They made solar cells, built windmills, designed fruit batteries, and constructed water mills, which they incorporated into their team's house and biome.
Participants in the Blind Design track worked directly with architecture students to create the design and framework of their house. Instructors walked the students through the various processes a beginning architecture student would experience-- moving from initial draft drawings to constructing scale models. The track provided great opportunities to incorporate alternative techniques to combat the visual challenges posed by the field of architecture. For example, students used Wikki Stix and rapid-prototyping devices to replace computer-aided-drawing (CAD) activities. Manipulatives such as wooden blocks and dowels cut to various scales and identified by means of different textures or Braille labels were used to help students during the construction process. These manipulatives became more intricate and were transformed into realistic models as the design process neared completion.
Slammin' in Space: Participants in this track spent the week learning about space phenomena and preparing for a simulation mission at the Maryland Challenger Center. Activities incorporated hands-on supplements such as tactile phases-of-the-moon charts, which were helpful during the moon mission at the Challenger Center. Students also learned about constellations, invisible light waves, environments on other planets, and much more through hands-on activities. Participants toured the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and learned about various professions in aeronautics. Instructors included Noreen Grice from the Boston Planetarium, owner of You Can Do Astronomy, LLC; Ben Wentworth, a retired science teacher of the blind from Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Vivian Hoette from the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.
Slamming out the World's Water Crisis: Dr. April Hill and PhD candidate Cary Supalo from Penn State University created this unique twist in chemistry to educate participants about the world water crisis. In addition to learning about the severity of the crisis, track participants used some of the chemistry-related techniques currently being explored by scientists in water remediation, working to remove the harmful materials found in many water supplies. This track helped introduce some exciting methods for making chemistry labs accessible to blind students. Participants used sophisticated software and equipment that can indicate to a blind person whether or not a chemical reaction has taken place. Other software makes certain pieces of lab equipment independently accessible to the blind.
Slam Talk Back--Creating IM Chatbots: We definitely had some future employees of Google and Yahoo in our midst. In this track students built their own chatbots that talked to them through Instant Messenger during the week. Participants were able to design their chatbots with unique qualities and personalities. They returned home with a better understanding of artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and Web programming, along with a personalized chatbot that they can continue to use on their home computers. A team from Access Computing from the University of Washington helped make this exciting track possible again this year.
Slammin' Sports: Professors from the University of Maryland's School of Public Health led participants through a series of interactive activities around physical fitness and its science. Students were charged with the tasks of incorporating skills they learned during the week into the design of their own personal fitness regimens. They worked as a team to design a game, toy, or piece of playground equipment to fit the universal-design guidelines. Participants also heard from blind professionals in related fields such as recreational science, massage therapy, and sports medicine.
CSI Slam: Participants in this class had their work cut out for them. They were charged with the task of using principles of chemistry and other scientific skills to solve a murder case. Until now this popular field has not seemed very blind-friendly. But, through some simple adaptations and a little imagination, we showed that many of the chemical tests performed in this field could be made accessible. For example, students could detect whether a reaction had occurred when a specific chemical was applied by using a color identifier. This test enabled students to tell whether a stain was blood. Additionally, fingerprints lifted from an object could be covered with graphite or black ink, copied onto swell-form paper, and run through a swell-form machine to make them tactilely discernible. We hope to see more interest among blind people in this field over the next few years.
Youth Slam Blind Driver Challenge: Riding on the tail of the organization's national initiative to create a car that the blind can drive independently, this track pushed participants to think more creatively than ever before. Engineering students from Virginia Tech University's blind driver challenge team participated in the NFB Youth Slam. They led a group of students through what has been the team's challenge for the past year. Each pod in the track identified a specific problem to solve in making a vehicle accessible. Teams then designed prototypes based on principles of engineering that could potentially address that issue. On Friday track participants test drove the accessible go-cart built this past year by the VT team. A great deal of excitement and media attention were focused on this project that day. Those who are interested in reading some of the newspaper articles about this project should visit the NFB's Website.
Operation Air Slam: It's not every day that someone can say he or she launched a scientific balloon. Now fifteen NFB Youth Slam participants can make this claim. These students worked with instructors from the University of Maryland Balloon Science Program and the Maryland Space Grant Consortium. Through hands-on physics experiments and presentations students learned how and why balloon launching is a valuable asset to scientists who study the atmosphere. Groups put together Cricket Sensors and attached these payloads to simple party balloons that were equipped with tracking devices. After the launch students analyzed data that was transmitted in Morse code from the sensors before the balloons landed several miles outside Baltimore City. Participants also visited the space systems and neutral buoyancy labs on campus to tour the unique facilities used by the university's aerospace engineering department. They also attended a lecture by a blind employee at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
NFB Slam News: Instead of engaging in a specific set of STEM activities for part of the day, students in this track spent their time visiting other tracks and reporting on the various activities. This year participants in this track captured the highlights of the week through podcasts, blogs, written articles, and videography. A number of talented blind sound engineers, writers, and editors assisted the students in this effort, guiding them with their skills in using nonvisual techniques to produce quality media. This track demonstrated to students that one can work in many other professions that require knowledge of the STEM subjects. It taught students how to exercise their own voices to provide a unique inside look at the week.
Slam Robots: In this exciting new track, participants explored robotics in small teams using Lego Mindstorm robots. An instructor from the Rochester Institute of Technology, along with our own Robert Jaquiss of Louisiana, led students through a series of computer programming activities as teams worked toward a final challenge project. Participants learned about robotic movement, navigation, and sensors while programming a solution using creativity and problem-solving skills. At the end of the week each team's robot participated in a challenge maze to test the teams' work.
When they weren't participating in track activities, students could select a variety of short sessions. Nearly thirty short sessions were peppered throughout the week. We wanted the students to taste a lot of things that would whet their appetite for more. Short sessions crossed over all elements of the STEM curriculum.
Staff members from the NFB International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC) fascinated technology lovers with sessions on the history of technology. They displayed various pieces of equipment that have evolved over the years. They also introduced blindness products helpful to students, such as electronic Braille notetakers, speech and magnification programs, scanning software, and the Victor Reader Stream.
A favorite among the short sessions was the shark dissection, a trademark activity of previous NFB science academies. Other sessions included labs on making synthetic collagen, building and testing windmills, studying invisible light rays, examining tactile photos from the Hubble telescope, and learning the chemistry of cooking through making chocolate.
Another exciting partnership in this component was the participation of Mike May, cofounder and CEO of Sendero Group and one of the developers of the first accessible GPS for the blind. Mike led a couple of sessions designed like sophisticated scavenger hunts to teach the students how to use this technology.
Addressing blindness issues was also a key part of the week. These activities were as important to the curriculum and the learning experience as the STEM content sessions. Whether a session was a debate or a straightforward discussion, the topics were advocacy, making a positive first impression as a blind person, cane travel, legislation, and the importance of collective action.
One afternoon and evening we visited the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. The afternoon featured tours of the NFB Jernigan Institute, short sessions on blindness topics, and an exhibit hall staffed by various organizations from around the country. The evening concluded with a fabulous talent show in which students performed. President Maurer even regaled the group with a rousing a cappella version of a song from Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury," which he characterized as the intersection where litigation and opera meet.
What is a youth program without a little fun? Evenings were filled with recreational activities such as goalball, judo instruction, and other sports activities, along with dancing until our feet hurt. One evening presenters from the Westminster Astronomical Society of Maryland even hosted a star party. Participants made tactile images of real-time photos from the evening's night sky.
By far the Rec-EX (Recreation Extreme) night was the most popular evening and took some students literally to new heights. If they weren't jumping by leaps and bounds on the bungee trampoline or flying high on the sticky wall, students could be found sliding down the giant inflated water slide or being tossed around by the mechanical bull. The evening truly had something for everyone. Several participants even got the opportunity to douse some of the NFB's leaders in the dunk tank.
The Youth Rally and March in DC
On Friday the NFB Youth Slam closed its program with a bang. We held an exciting rally at the Lincoln Memorial on the Mall, followed by a program at the brand-new Visitor Center at the US Capitol. Students were bused to the Lincoln Memorial for what was truly a momentous occasion. Blind people gathered in front of the Reflecting Pool at the foot of the memorial. Hundreds of young blind people with high aspirations for the future were surrounded by dozens of blind mentors and other members of the National Federation of the Blind. Music greeted the crowd with messages of "I have a dream," "Your story is yet unwritten," and "They say that the blind cannot do science, and we say, Slam that!"
As the group gathered, the wind picked up and the skies opened, drenching the listening crowd with a downpour. The speakers got as wet as everybody else. NFB First Vice President Dr. Frederic Schroeder and President Marc Maurer inspired the youth to aim high and continue the fight for equality. Presidential Assistant Kareem Dale commented at the beginning of his abbreviated remarks that he was going to demand hazardous-duty pay, and keynote speaker Ever Lee Hairston laughed at the rain and challenged the cheering crowd with her personal story of freedom dreamed of, demanded, and earned. She even led the crowd in a chorus of "We Shall Overcome." Enthusiasm prevailed as the crowd outlasted the rain to march the two miles from the Lincoln Memorial to the US Capitol.
When we arrived, we enjoyed a reception at the new Capitol Visitor Center, where participants were addressed by Representative Steny Hoyer. He reiterated the importance of blind people's belief in themselves and each other. NASA representatives presented the NFB with the Louis Braille commemorative coins that flew into space on a shuttle mission earlier this summer.
What did the NFB Youth Slam mean to its participants? This week was more than an exciting opportunity to meet new people and learn new things. Many of the participants took home a greater sense of pride in themselves as blind people, not to mention that shot in the arm of Federation philosophy that we all know and love. For some this was a life-changing event, perhaps the first time anyone has really expected quality work from them and challenged them to expect it from themselves.
For some participants insight came from something as simple as a new activity or subject they had never had the opportunity to explore. One young woman, previously determined to go into a field related to fashion, proclaimed to her mother one evening on the phone that she is now considering marine biology. She participated in the dogfish shark dissection and found that she may have more interest in biology than she realized. Because of her blindness she had never had much exposure to biology or other sciences. She learned for herself this week that there are more doors to open and fields for her to explore.
The opportunity to participate in the NFB Youth Slam this summer definitely made an impression on each of us who took part. It's so much bigger than exposing students to STEM subjects and enabling them to meet other blind youth. We all left feeling a little different from when we arrived. We recently received an email from a parent saying that her daughter came back an entirely different person. She explained that her daughter had usually used sighted-guide technique with her parents. When she picked up her daughter after Youth Slam, the young girl walked independently through the airport using her cane. She explained to her mom what an experience it had been for her to be around people who, in her words, "just get it" with respect to blindness.
We hope that Federationists will follow up with youth and mentors from your states who participated in the NFB Youth Slam. Get to know them and their families and continue to share the Federation's message with them. Ask them to share with you what they learned from their NFB Youth Slam experience. You won't be sorry.